Food Energies and Flavors Applied in Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, food does play an important part in prevention and treatment of illnesses. This is generally referred to as Chinese food therapy or Chinese Nutrition therapy. This practice is said to date back as early as 2000 BC in China. The philosophy behind the practice is that food contains energetic properties that help in restoring and maintaining the balance between the yin and yang properties of the body. It is also believed that certain foods generate yin (lowers the metabolism), while others produce yang (increases heat in the body).

There are four food groups in the Chinese diet: grains, fruits, meats and vegetables. Contrary to popular belief, dairy products are actually not considered as suitable food for humans. A balanced diet in TCM calls for 40 percent grains, 30 to 40 percent vegetables, 10 percent meats and the balance in fruits and nuts.

Food is also said to generate different energies or sensations in the human body, and there are five identified energies: Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool and Cold. Hot and Warm energies are Yang properties, Neutral is a balance of Yin and Yang and Cool and Cold food energies are all Yin properties.  In TCM, the doctor assesses your body’s constitution and what kinds of food are necessary to maintain the balance for your body type. For instance if you have a cold constitution you would need to eat foods with yang. Examples of warm food would be chicken, brown sugar, coffee, sweet basil, vinegar, walnut and potato. Hot foods would be pepper, soybean oil, cinnamon bark and dried ginger. To cool down, foods such as banana, grapefruit, watermelon, cream, strawberry and spinach should be added to the diet. Neutral foods such as corn, beef, carp, rice, mushroom and honey should be part of a regular diet as they are good for everyone and promote clear thinking and proper functioning of the body’s organs.

Some easy to remember guidelines for determining what kinds of food are yin or yang are as follows:

  • Those that grow in the air and with sunshine is more likely yang.
  • Produce that grow in the earth or in shade or darkness have yin energy
  • Soft, wet and cool foods have more yin
  • Hard, dry or spicy are more yang.

The flavor of food is also an important element in Chinese food therapy. It is believed that the taste of food directly affects or influences specific vital organs of the body. These are the following:

  • Sweet: Affects Stomach and Spleen. The sweet flavor is said to be used for tonifying as well as to neutralize the toxic effects of other food.
  • Pungent: Affects Lung and Large Intestines. Pungent flavor in food promotes the circulation of the blood and the life energy, or qi.
  • Sour: Affects Liver and Gall Bladder. It has an astringent character that helps to minimize excessive perspiration.
  • Bitter: Affects Heart and Small Intestine. Bitter-tasting foods help reduce body heat, dry body fluids and can induce diarrhea.
  • Salty: Affects Kidney and Bladder. The flavor can act as a purgative and softens the hardness in muscles or glands.
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